How your smart TV data is used and abused

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

March 9, 2015

TV sets are becoming ever more ‘smart’, and while this is a win for consumers in terms of access to content, convenience, and funky features, it also means they can and are used to spy on us to an often spooky degree.

As with just about commercial assaults on our privacy (as opposed to NSA government surveillance), the aim is to develop as detailed a picture of you as possible (the things you like, where you go and what you do, and most importantly of all, what your spending habits habits) so that advertising companies can deliver very highly targeted and personalized ads. As a business model this has served the likes of Google and Facebook very well, and almost every commercial service in existence wants to get in on the act.

As the recent Samsung voice recognition furore demonstrates, Smart TVs are uniquely worrying in terms of privacy, because not only do our viewing habits provide a very personal window into our personalities, but the range of tracking and sensor technologies built-into these devices, which often have pride of place in our living and bedrooms – places where we live out much our lives without a thought for the gadget in front of us that is quietly listening-in and monitoring our every word and deed – provide faceless advertising companies with an intimate, highly personal, and often scarily accurate picture if us.

One of the most commonly used such surveillance technologies is Automatic Content Recognition (Samsung, LG, Sony, and Panasonic are all experimenting with ACR), which uses hardware embedded in the TV to monitor audio and/or video output. This data is then sent to third party analytics companies who analyze it to determine what you have been watching, and then use this information built up a detailed picture of your viewing habits.

Samsung, for example, has embedded Enswers ACR technology in its products since 2012, and during Super Bowl XLVIII used it to allow watchers to purchase David Beckham underwear during the commercial break directly from the advert and using just their remote controls.

Every day, Enswers identifies content for millions of queries against thousands of hours of audio and video content, while processing hundreds of media files and live feeds into its database.

Given that revenues for audience-measurement and analytics companies are huge (Nielson, for example, made over $6 billion profits last year), it is not surprising that they and TV manufacturers are playing fast and loose with customers’ privacy in order to maximize profits. Vizio, for example, include the following terms hidden away in their privacy policy,

When Smart Interactivity is enabled, VIZIO will collect specific viewing information, including but not limited to the identity of your broadcast, cable, or satellite television provider, the television programs and commercials you view (including time, date, channel, and whether you view them live or time-shifted), and whether you click on any advertisements.

LG’s privacy policy states that,

Depending on which Smart TV service you are using, we may use your Viewing Information to provide you with recommendations of TV content that may be of interest to you, to contribute to aggregate statistics to determine the popularity of particular TV content, to serve you with advertisements for content, products, and services that may be of interest to you, to analyze how our services are being used, and make improvements to them.

And when we say that these clauses are hidden away, we mean it. The LG terms of use displayed to customers during setup contains some 18 sections, plus an 11 section privacy policy and an extra popup asking them to agree to 3 additional services. Coming in at some 6000 words in total, it is hardly surprising that many (most?) users simply hit the handy one-click ‘agree to everything’ button.

There has, however, been some pushback. Citing the FTC Act, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, The Cable Act, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint against Samsung with the FCC,

Samsung routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes. Consumers who have learned of this practices have described it is as both “unfair” and “deceptive. ”Samsung’s attempts to disclaim its intrusive surveillance activities by means of a “privacy notice” do not diminish the harm to American consumers.

Democrat Senator Al Franken (Minnesota) has also sent open letters to Samsung and LG,

Given the nature of voice data, at a minimum, Samsung should provide clear and comprehensive privacy policies related to its SmartTV products and services, and should disclose detailed information about its data-sharing relationships with other companies. Consumers must be able to make informed decisions about whether and with whom they share that information, and they must be assured that when the information is shared that it will receive the utmost protection. I am concerned that Samsung currently does not provide consumers with the information needed to understand how their voice data may be used by third parties.

Unfortunately, given the profits to be made from harvesting and exploiting smart TV users’ data, we do not such intrusive home surveillance practices will end anytime soon…

Our thanks to Glenn Derene of ConsumerReports for the article upon which this item is based.

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